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Tuesday, Sep. 27, 2016

Gray Matter: Father Jan a true inspiration

Monday, May 15, 2006

Here is the story I promised you of Father Jan Lisowski, a native of Poland, who was once assigned to Holy Name Church here in Marcus as an associate priest.

He had come to the US and the church's Sioux City diocese, as a displaced person. It was during the time of his four-year stay in our town that Pope John Paul II made his historic visit to Iowa. In fact, Father Jan, as he was affectionately known, was one of the priests chosen to assist with the outdoor papal mass held at Living History Farms.

Not long after that event I was able to interview him for a story for our local paper. I went, expecting to hear the exuberance of a Polish priest who had been privileged to serve his fellow countryman in this manner. The gentle scholar I met that morning gave me quite a different story.

First, let me tell you something of his background. He had been educated both in his native country and in Rome. Upon completing his studies, he had been ordained and assigned to a parish in Poland to begin his ministry. This was just before the start of WWII. In a few short months, when the Nazis invaded Poland, he, with many other Christian leaders, was hustled off to concentration camps in Russia. That imprisonment ended through a British-Russian prisoner exchange, in time for Father Jan to join Allied Forces as a chaplain in Sicily. There, during some of the fiercest campaigns of the war, he suffered severe shrapnel injuries to his face which left him disfigured and unable to speak clearly. After long and gruelling surgical treatment in England, he returned to Rome and, from there, came to America.

I learned, as we visited, that this man had earned two doctoral degrees from Rome's Gregorian University, one in theology and the other in civil and canon law. Copies of his dissertations, which are found in scholarly libraries around the world, were lying on a table near where we were sitting. With a sly smile, he offered to let me borrow them to read at my leisure. One was in Latin and the other in Polish!

He then explained that, having lived and studied in Rome, he had often seen previous popes. So it was quite a different experience for him than for the throngs of people who had never seen the Holy Father in person before, and probably would never have the opportunity again. His joy each time it had happened, came from his firm Catholic belief that the Pope, the Vicar of Christ, is the visible connection, the life-line as it were, between God and man. This concept was difficult for me to grasp, from my Protestant viewpoint. Still, the humble awe in which he held the papacy was much more impressive than any kind of humanistic pride he might have shown in a simple vicarious sharing of a common ethnic background. His respect and joy would have been just as great had the Pope been a black or an Asian Indian, he assured me. I was deeply moved.

That kind, humble man, who had suffered more than any of us could imagine, summed up his reaction to the response of the American people to John Paul II in this way. "So much in our society appeals to man's lowest levels, to the human as animal. But that is not what man really wants. People responded so overwhelmingly to the Holy Father because they saw in him an embodiment of those higher values for which man is so hungry."

Wise, wise words! Regrettably, I fear they would be even more true today than they were when first uttered nearly 30 years ago.